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Ronald is CEO and Executive Director of JCCA

Ronald E. Richter is the CEO and Executive Director of JCCA, an organization that provides child welfare and mental health services to the most vulnerable of New York’s children and families. Throughout his career, Ron has been a steadfast advocate for the children of New York, whether as a judge in the Family Court system or as Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

Ron joined host Jay Ruderman to discuss some of the misconceptions around the foster care system, how his own childhood informs his work, and what changes are needed to improve our systems for child welfare.

To learn more about the JCCA, click here.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Ronald E. Richter:

Unless we really focus on addressing the needs of young people, then we’re going to end up having fewer resources as a society.

Jay Ruderman:

Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.

Montage:

I say put mental health first, because if you don’t-

This generation of America has already had enough.

I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.

Louder.

Louder.

Jay Ruderman:

Ronald E. Richter is the CEO and executive director of JCCA, an organization that provides child welfare and mental health services to the most vulnerable of New York’s children and families. Before that, he spent years working as commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, as well as serving on the bench as a judge in the New York City family court system. Suffice it to say the passion Ron has for helping children in need runs deep.

Ronald E. Richter:

From a relatively young age, I was very drawn to the challenges that kids have in our world, in life. Just a feeling that the voices of children, including my own, were not always heard.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron drew inspiration from his father’s harrowing childhood.

Ronald E. Richter:

As a young man, or young boy, really, during the Holocaust, and his very traumatic experience as an adolescent.

Jay Ruderman:

As well as coming to terms with his gay identity as a child.

Ronald E. Richter:

In my eyes, I was an effeminate, littleish kid, and people were not sensitive to the impact of bullying and mistreating. I think that it’s something that gets imprinted on your brain and it’s very, very hard to overcome.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron is particularly passionate about mental health care as a critical facet of child welfare, an issue for which too few resources exist for kids, let alone kids with greater needs.

Ronald E. Richter:

Without treating children’s behavioral health challenges, their depression, their anxiety, their PTSD, we’re creating people who don’t have the ability to function, who don’t have the capacity to show up at work.

Jay Ruderman:

And he brings his experience implementing evidence-based social services for young people to his current work at JCCA.

Ronald E. Richter:

There are so many examples of amazingly resilient young people who have persevered and succeeded. We don’t like talk about those, we like to talk about the kids who have struggled so much and been so traumatized that they end up in jail or worse. But the fact of the matter is that there are amazing, inspiring stories everywhere you look in our child welfare world.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron Richter, thank you so much for being my guest on All About Change. I really look forward to this discussion about something that is really important in our society, so welcome.

Ronald E. Richter:

Thank you.

Jay Ruderman:

Let me start off by asking you a little bit about yourself. Why did you decide to go into law, and tell me how you became a judge?

Ronald E. Richter:

From a relatively young age, I was very drawn to the challenges that kids have in our world, in life. I think later on, I discovered that my interest in issues affecting children were very much related to my father’s experience as a young man or young boy, really, during the Holocaust, and his very traumatic experiences in adolescence. Just a feeling that the voices of children, including my own, were not always heard. I’ll add that I didn’t know at the time that I was gay, because this goes back to very young, but ultimately think that that also has something to do with it, that I was a kid in the ’70s struggling with my identity, and I’m sure wanted to be heard more than maybe I was.

Jay Ruderman:

So you bring up a couple of interesting points: First of all, did your dad ever share with you his experiences as a child in the Holocaust?

Ronald E. Richter:

He did. So my father was born in 1928 in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1939, the Germans invaded Belgium. They were among the first to be invaded, and my grandmother decided that she was going to pack everything up that they had and leave their home, and that’s what they did, and they hit the road, and tried to get out of Belgium. And it took about six months ultimately of them living hand to mouth, until my grandmother was able to take everything that she had of any value and purchase two, sort of, what he described as fake passports, but passage to relatives in the Vichy part of France. And they just lived a very frightening life, with my father experiencing hunger, and just a really horrifying, traumatizing experience. But ultimately, they survived, and my dad, and his sister, and my grandmother returned to Belgium. And I will say that they survived when most of my dad’s family did not.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, thank God for that, and because of that, you’re here with us today.

Ronald E. Richter:

That is true. That’s probably why I became a judge and why I feel so strongly about justice for children.

Jay Ruderman:

And you talked about growing up in the ’70s-

Ronald E. Richter:

Yes.

Jay Ruderman:

… as someone who realized that they were gay. So did that have an impact on how you felt, in terms of an identity, and valuing a child, and how a child sees him or herself?

Ronald E. Richter:

I think it still affects me today. As much as all of us try to be self-reflective and reconcile our prior experiences, I think that it’s something that gets imprinted on your brain, and it’s very, very hard to overcome. Yeah, I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the ’70s, a very progressive town called Teaneck, but struggled with sort of being bullied, because I was, in my eyes, I was an effeminate, little-ish kid, and people were not sensitive to the impact of bullying and mistreating. And I was fortunate, I had some teachers that I think were amazing role models, including I think a fourth grade teacher who was a gay Black man in Teaneck, New Jersey, and that would’ve been probably in 1974-ish. So I was lucky, but I definitely felt different, and I guess somewhat odd.

Jay Ruderman:

You also served as the Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. Talk about how that position shaped your view of child welfare.

Ronald E. Richter:

It’s a position of tremendous power, where you really have an opportunity to develop policies that, in my estimation, can really impact children and families who are primarily poor and of color, in this case, in New York City. And I felt the greatest impact that I had was around juvenile justice reforms to prevent children from being placed outside of their communities, outside of their homes on delinquency cases, and also spending a lot of energy trying to modernize the preventive services system in New York, so that we in New York to this day rely on evidence-based models of prevention, so models of prevention that have been shown to actually work when studied, and social workers follow protocols in order to ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved, programs that are designed to reduce the level of risk so that families can actually remain together safely and thrive.

Jay Ruderman:

See, I find this fascinating. I used to be a prosecutor, and I handled juvenile justice for many years, and I saw many, many children go into the juvenile justice system, into locked facilities. I do not remember at the time, and this is going back decades, of the type of interventions that you’re talking about. So can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think it’s so important, the shift in how we deal with children who are in crisis, and instead of treating them as criminals, we try to treat them as children, and help them, and help their families.

Ronald E. Richter:

So I am proud to say that I think New York is a leader in doing exactly what you just said. I think that we have made investments, including when I was a deputy commissioner at ACS, New York City’s child welfare agency, in 2006, the Bloomberg administration invested $9 million, which is a lot of money when you’re talking about prevention, in order to purchase these evidence-based models. When I was the commissioner, we did it in child welfare or child protection. When I was a deputy commissioner, we did it in juvenile justice, where we actually purchased models of care that were demonstrated to work in order to reduce recidivism. And we met with prosecutors, we met with defense attorneys, we met with judges.

We brought the model developers to New York at significant cost, to essentially demonstrate to all of the players in the system that what we were doing, placing 15- and 16-year-olds eight hours from their home, at a tremendous expense to the taxpayer, wasn’t netting very good outcomes. We had huge recidivism, and part of the reason for the recidivism was that children who are 15, 16, 17, they need to be with their families. They obviously need the support of people who actually love them. And so it worked, and we pretty quickly saw that judges and prosecutors were willing to entertain it. As you know, for the most part, these are people who go into this work because they actually care about, yes, public safety and good outcomes. I think that there was a recognition that these are pretty young kids, and yes, they sometimes act badly and do stuff that’s stupid, but that shouldn’t change the trajectory of their life so much that they’re separated from the people who love them.

Jay Ruderman:

Let’s talk about the relationship between the children and their parents, because my guess is that sometimes it’s a good relationship and sometimes it’s not a good relationship. And how would you deal with each of those situations?

Ronald E. Richter:

Right, so this is why these models work. This is why functional family therapy and multi-systemic therapy work, because this is not about the young person necessarily being subjected to some sort of course of treatment. This is about the family being assessed, and the family having a social worker involved in their lives in a pretty intensive way, for a relatively short period of time, three to six months.

But the way that I used to describe it is that it’s a social worker at the kitchen table, someone who is ultimately trying to ensure that a parent actually has established authority in the family structure. And many of the kids that got involved in the kinds of behaviors that I just described were kids where they were running amok, and their parent could not control their behavior. So kids who had chronic absenteeism, kids who were hanging out and doing stuff, even if it wasn’t criminal, that was just plain stupid, and parents who were tremendously frustrated, but often a single parent, often a single parent that had a couple of younger children that were much more time-consuming than an adolescent.

And these models are designed to address the dysfunction and create more functionality, not perfect, but really empowering the parent to manage their child. But I can’t say that, from my experience at JCCA, where I work, I can’t say that families are all good in three to six months, because there are institutional, systemic challenges that remain if you still have a deficient education system, a deficient healthcare system, struggles with housing, economic deprivation that include parents really having a hard time getting a job that helps them support their families.

For those families that have complex needs, an evidence-based model for three to six months is not going to solve everything. It’s going to help. It’s going to give agency to the parent, which is so important, but we have a lot of work to do that is well outside of juvenile justice and child welfare. One of the challenges we as a society have is that child welfare is supposed to be a panacea, when in fact, and in law, child welfare is the 911 when things have really gone awry. We are not designed to be a quote/unquote “primary preventive system”.

Jay Ruderman:

So you mentioned JCCA. First of all, why did you decide to leave the courtroom and get involved in the nonprofit side of child welfare, and why did you decide to join JCCA, and what do they do?

Ronald E. Richter:

Jewish Child Care Association was founded in 1822, to provide cash transfers, basically, to poor Jewish immigrant folks in New York. There were children that were being identified by local authorities living on the streets with their Jewish mothers, and there were other religions too, but Jewish mothers who needed to be removed, because the children were failing to thrive. And JCCA’s forebears built orphanages in New York to care for these children.

They’re sort of called single-parent orphans. And JCCA, since that time, has developed preventive services to support parents to take care of their children at home. We have developed significant mental health services, so that children and families that are struggling with mental health issues are able to live safely with each other. And we’ve continued to provide out-of-home care for an increasingly small number of kids, and we’re a big agency, but right now, we probably have about 450 to 500 kids living in out-of-home care.

Jay Ruderman:

So when does that happen, the rare case where a child needs to be removed from the home and placed in foster care? What does that look like?

Ronald E. Richter:

It’s devastating. It’s a very unfortunate occurrence. I will say in New York City, in 1990, we had close to 50,000 children in foster care. Today, we have less than 7,000 children in foster care, and that is a strong public policy against removing children. Having said that, I do think that there are kids who can’t live at least temporarily with parents who are not able to provide what we say in the law is a minimum degree of care. So children who are left alone, even though they’re two and three years old, children who are not fed, children who have exceptional special needs that are just not being met, parents who are engaged in serious violence in the presence of their children for a range of reasons.

So it is in those cases where the Child Protective Service investigates and determines that they think a child is at risk, and then presents their evidence to a judge, who actually has to make a legal finding that the child’s life or health is in imminent danger, and then, there can be a removal. A lot of children coming into care have very complex needs, and that can be the result of significant trauma, even if a parent doesn’t intend to cause trauma.

I’ve seen less of kids who are coming into care because of their own particular needs and a competent parent who can’t meet them. I mean, usually, if you have a parent that you can work with, a parent who is engaged and wants their kid to succeed at home, those kids are generally not being removed, and they shouldn’t be. It is usually a case where a parent has, let’s say, a child who has a developmental disability, a physical disability, and even though that parent wants that child to succeed because of their own limitations and because of a lack of strong community-based services, coupled with strong special education services, which we lack, those kids sometimes come into care.

Jay Ruderman:

And when you talk about foster care, is foster care placing them with another family or is it placing them in a group housing?

Ronald E. Richter:

The overwhelming majority of children who are in foster care are in a foster family, living in community, and in probably about half of those cases, the foster family is kin. The foster family is either biologically related to the parents and the child, or someone that the child knows well, a teacher, a counselor, a friend’s parent. So there’s been a tremendous effort and success, I think, in our child welfare system to really maximize the likelihood that a kid is not in what we call stranger foster care.

Jay Ruderman:

Can you talk about budget cuts in New York and what impact that those budget cuts have had on child welfare?

Ronald E. Richter:

There’s a huge impact on children, and I think that there’s an ease with which we as advocates are always going back to restore what we had last year that’s been cut again, as opposed to being able to build on our successes. Having said that, it’s also the way in which we have structured the receipt, in particular for young people in foster care, of behavioral health services. So children who come into care obviously have experienced something traumatic, in addition to the removal from their family, and they have a much higher occurrence of anxiety, depression, other behavioral health challenges.

And in New York, we have moved to what we call managed care for children in out-of-home care. And that means insurance companies are now either paying us or not paying us for the services we provide to children in out-of-home care. And of course, their business model is to deny claims. And so what is even more damaging than budget cuts is a structure in which children that the government has removed, those children are dependent on profit-making, managed care organizations for the delivery of their range of physical and behavioral health services.

Jay Ruderman:

I want to talk a little bit about some of the myths of the welfare system and foster care. Can you talk about some of the stereotypes that you want to push back on that the society may have about foster care and the welfare system?

Ronald E. Richter:

Most importantly, for a range of reasons, there’s lack of understanding that kids who are in foster care are just like any other kids. Somehow, we want to think that they are damaged. We want to think that they are unlikely to succeed. We love data, no matter how many decades old it is, that says, “Well, kids in foster care are more likely to be teen parents. Kids in foster care are more likely to go to jail.” We drive home the data without understanding, I think, that it takes something to get into foster care. Something has happened in your life that is pretty meaningful, and often quite deleterious to your success. Of course, the data remains concerning, but we can’t overlook adverse childhood experiences and the impact that that has on a child’s likelihood of success. We also, as we just talked about, do not appear to want to invest as much as these foster youth need to succeed.

I think we’re making progress, but there remains generally a lack of recognition of the incredible resilience of children who are in foster care, the amazing folks who are trying to support them. We like to emphasize the tragedies. We like to emphasize what’s gone wrong, as opposed to looking at how amazing it is that we have kids who are successful in school, who go to college, who have relationships with their families, even though they’re not living with their families. So I think a big myth is this whole stigma that we associate with kids in foster care, that’s simply not fair. A lot of that has to do with the fact that a lot of kids in foster care are Black and Brown children, and so we deliver upon them all of our associated racism and biases. And it’s a neat little package that is completely folderol.

Jay Ruderman:

Have you run into examples where the communities where these children are living in foster care situations have been unhelpful, in terms of how they react to children in foster care being in their communities?

Ronald E. Richter:

So I think that, first of all, it’s very hard to generalize about these communities. Right now, in child welfare, we’re confronting what’s been characterized as sort of abolitionism. We want to abolish the child welfare system. And there are those advocates who will say, “We’re just representing the views of our community.” And at the end of the day, “No, you’re not. You’re representing the views of you and I’m representing the views of me, having had the experience I’ve had, and you having the experience you’ve had.” But there’s no question in my mind that communities that are struggling with economic deprivation, et cetera, are also communities that want their children to be safe, that they want to be safe.

And if you look at the way those communities vote when they go to the polls, it would suggest that this is an important government function in their minds. Now, that’s not to say that there are fears in communities about patching a case and having your child removed, and those fears are well-founded, because the data would suggest that there’s a lot more of that going on in communities where there’s economic deprivation. But that doesn’t mean that the people who live there don’t think that there’s a role for protecting children in government, or frankly that those communities don’t want good-quality law enforcement, because generally they do.

Jay Ruderman:

Is there one particular example of a success story where a child was placed in foster care and thrived in that situation?

Ronald E. Richter:

Oh my gosh, so many. We happened to be having our gala, our annual gala tonight, and I just asked someone whether a kid named Anthony is going to be there. Anthony grew up in foster care, then he lived on our residential campus. He now is the director of a program at JCCA supporting at-risk youth. And Anthony is not alone. There are many Anthonys. Whatever you may think of her, Tiffany Haddish grew up in foster care, and during the pandemic, actually did a Zoom with our young people who live on our campus, and talked about what that was like.

There are so many examples of amazingly resilient young people who have persevered and succeeded. We don’t like to talk about those. We like to talk about the kids who have struggled so much and been so traumatized that they end up in jail or worse. But the fact of the matter is that there are amazing, inspiring stories everywhere you look in our child welfare world.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron, I want to talk a little bit about mental health, because sometimes traditionally we think of child welfare is making sure that children have a place to sleep and a place to eat. But mental health, especially post-COVID, is so vital. And I heard you speak and say that you wouldn’t walk around with a broken arm and not treat it, or with a fever and not treat it. But mental health regularly is not treated in our society. So can you talk a little bit about mental health and the importance of mental health in the system?

Ronald E. Richter:

Mental health is not treated in our society, even though we have laws that create parity, which is really astounding, right? We’ve passed laws to say it is equal, yet we do not support it. So as you pointed out, because of the pandemic, in 2021, more than four in 10 students, so young people, 42% felt persistently sad or hopeless, and almost a third experienced what we consider poor mental health. In the same year, 2021, more than one in five, 22% of students seriously considered attempting suicide, and one in 10 attempted suicide. If you are in foster care or if you are in a child welfare program, then something has happened.

So the occurrence of depression, PTSD anxiety, far exceeds in our population of young people, the general population, in terms of occurrence. And it is tremendously frustrating that we, across the United States today, cannot even find a psychiatrist for our kid if we can afford to pay hundreds of dollars an hour. Without treating children’s behavioral health challenges, their depression, their anxiety, their PTSD, we’re creating people who don’t have the ability to function, who don’t have the capacity to show up at work, who are distracted by their illness. And for some reason, we have not as a society decided that that warrants our urgent attention. Instead, we have empowered insurance companies to decline claims.

Jay Ruderman:

You mentioned the lack of clinicians. Has JCCA been able to provide the mental health counseling to children and their families that is needed?

Ronald E. Richter:

We have wait lists. The answer is no, and we prioritize the children who have the most urgent needs, so those would be children who are living in residential care. But I don’t think there’s a provider in the United States that does what JCCA does, that currently has adequate behavioral health staffing. There aren’t enough providers, and you don’t see us rushing to incentivize young people to go to social work school. No one is saying, “Oh, we’ll give you a free ride.” And I think that we have to get over that, because yes, if you have, God forbid, cancer, you’re going to get an insurance company to pay for your treatment.

They’re going to pay for your broken arm to be X-rayed, and put in a sling, and have a doctor check it out. But we don’t feel the same way about people who are walking around suffering. We lament the use of cannabis. “Oh, my gosh, terrible, horrible. Look at what’s going on. I smell it everywhere.” That’s like the big complaint. Okay, why are people using cannabis? They are self-medicating. And again, we don’t want to acknowledge, we don’t want to acknowledge that we probably should be addressing this self-medication issue here in the United States.

Jay Ruderman:

When you are able to provide to children mental health services, my understanding is that it’s important that the family is also involved, the family also receives these services at the same time?

Ronald E. Richter:

100%, and very important, especially for children in out-of-home care, that whatever we’re working on with a young person, within the bounds of confidentiality, obviously, that their parent is well aware. I don’t think there are many people who have 14- and 15-year-olds who they just send off to a behavioral health specialist, a mental health professional, without knowing what’s going on behind the door.

We also use models where we will work the model with the young person on our campus, at the same time as we are working the model with the family in community, so that the parent is able to sort of assume a kind of leadership position in ensuring that the impact we’ve had on the campus continues in the community, and it works. We are able to shorten the lengths of stay for young people on our campus, and we’re able to get them home sooner to a parent that understands kind of what we’ve been trying to accomplish and has been part of that work.

Jay Ruderman:

Can you think of an example where mental health care have kept families together?

Ronald E. Richter:

Oh, my gosh. Tonight, we’re having a gala, and the speakers are a mother-daughter combination. They’re dynamic and fabulous, and the daughter was extremely ill, so much so that she was headed to Bellevue, which in New York is one of our children’s services in psychiatric care. And they actually worked intensively with a social worker, a licensed social worker at JCCA, who was in their home with them.

And they’re speaking tonight at our gala, because their relationship has improved tremendously. They understand each other better, they’re more sensitive to what each brings to the table, and it’s all because of effective behavioral healthcare, it’s because of functional family therapy, it’s because of an amazing team of staff at JCCA. So there is no question that it works. The question is why are we so reluctant to pay for it?

Jay Ruderman:

Do you think that JCCA and maybe New York State in general have led the way in a formula or a method that has had a positive impact on child welfare, on keeping families together? And if that’s true, is there a way to export that to other states around the country?

Ronald E. Richter:

So I think that in the area of prevention and in the area of integrating evidence-based practice, New York is the leader, and I’m proud to say I think New York City led New York State. This work was started during the Bloomberg administration. And why is that important? It’s important because Mayor Bloomberg is not known as someone who throws money away. He’s really prudent financially, and gave his administration the opportunity to make investments carefully, in order to ultimately reduce costs, because fewer kids come into foster care, fewer kids get placed on delinquency cases.

That’s meaningful, because number one, you’re helping a family stabilize and feel valued, and you’re saving the taxpayer millions and millions of dollars to accomplish relatively poor outcomes. So it is really a tribute to the city for going the direction that they went in. And frankly, I think the proof is in the pudding, because every administration since then has continued the same public policy.

Jay Ruderman:

So Ron, you’ve picked a challenging, although vitally important field, you’ve been doing this for a long time, and talking to you today, I know how passionate you are about this. What keeps you going?

Ronald E. Richter:

Okay, it’s the kids. I mean, there’s no question about it. It’s young people. I spent the first 13 years of my life representing kids as a lawyer in family court, and you can’t help but see how amazing they are. And I’m generalizing, but my message is always like every single kid is different, right? You are different from your sibling, you’re certainly different than your neighbor, and you’re definitely different than your neighbors’ kids, meaning your kids are different than your neighbors’ kids.

All that to say that unless we really focus on addressing the needs of young people, then we’re going to end up having fewer resources as a society. So I do it because of that, because I’m inspired by young people. In my career, have rarely met a parent that didn’t want what’s best for their child. They may not be able to support that child the way they need to be temporarily, but every parent, almost to a parent, loves their kid. And that is really inspiring to me, even in circumstances that I can’t imagine. And I do like the community that I work with. I’m inspired by the people that are doing this work. And that doesn’t just mean child welfare, it means human services and giving of themselves.

Jay Ruderman:

If someone listening to this show wants to get involved in JCCA of New York, how do they do that?

Ronald E. Richter:

They go to JCCANY.org and they look for how to become a volunteer or for the jobs that we have available, and they reach out to us.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron, first of all, I want to wish you much success on the gala tonight, and it was a pleasure having you as my guest on All About Change, and I wish you to go from strength to strength. Thank you so much.

Ronald E. Richter:

Many thanks, it was really a pleasure. Thank you for considering me and inviting me.

Jay Ruderman:

Ron’s deep-rooted values and dedication to the welfare of children has undoubtedly impacted lives of thousands of children and their families. And his work for JCCA has ensured that thousands more will be impacted by his efforts for years to come. Today’s episode was produced by Rebecca Chaisson, with story editing by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu.

To check out more episodes or to learn more about the show, you can visit our website AllAboutChangePodcast.com. If you like our show, spread the word, tell a friend or family member, or leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. We’d really appreciate it. All About Change is produced by the Ruderman Family Foundation, in partnership with Pod People. That’s all for now. I’m Jay Ruderman, and we’ll see you next time on All About Change.

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